Brexit is a thing, but Brexit is not the thing
There’s been a lot of hype recently over a petition to revoke article 50 and remain in the EU.
A lot of people who I like, and whose views I’m genuinely interested in, think it’s well worth signing.
But, curiously, there also seems to be a genuine thread of hopelessness around those promoting the petition. This tweet is a fair example:
This is truly hypernormalisation at work. “We know it’s a farce, but what else can we do?” It reflects a poverty of imagination that would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic.
A young Nelson Mandela, hot tears of frustration in his eyes, viciously signing a letter. Che Guevara in his prime, passionately ticking the fuck out of a box on a web form. Ghandi, really vehemently shrugging his shoulders and saying “Mate, I comment with absolutely massive conviction on Guardian articles once every so often”.
Debord would be chuckling. Participation as pretense. Protest as a performative gesture carried out in solitude. The totality of the spectacle dominating the imagination. Margaret Thatcher knew it best: TINA (“There is no alternative”).
But let’s not merely snipe. It’s true that the tactic is completely misguided, and that it won’t work. So what would? What else would you have them do?
There are many embedded assumptions in the question. “We should appeal to politicians to sort problems out.” (We shouldn’t, and it’s childish to assume so. Politics is not something other people do.)“We live in a democracy — the electoral/parliamentary system is just and fair.” (It’s not. It’s a pale shadow of real collaboration. You know this.) “Oh, if only we could convince people with our fine reasoning, it’d all be sorted.” (Yep. Convince the racists with logic. Sway those greedy CEOs and media barons with a bit of dogma. Shout down the miscreants and delinquents until they admit their defeat, every last one. Good luck.)
The petition validates all these assumptions, ratifies the decision-making system we have, then tells you to sit back down and shut up.
It lowers your expectations and narrows your view.
To which the reply seems to be:“It’s worth a shot anyway”. Now this is pretty odd reasoning. If I know that going into my garden and having a dance won’t make it rain, is it worth doing anyway? “But… I danced! What else can I do?”
Petitioner, is the dance for you or them? Is dancing together important, even if it’s hopeless? Is that what this is about — fellowship in tragedy? Gallows-humouring-each-other? Is that really all you have left to do?
Oh forthright signee, you can choose to not dance, for yourself or for them. It does nothing. In fact, it’s much, much worse than doing nothing. The exercise validates the whole shit-show and the vain liberal assumptions it carries. It convinces you that you’ve “done something” when all you’ve really achieved is a salving of your conscience. It’s wet, liberal hand wringing of the very worst kind. It heavily implies that you’ve “done all I can” when — steady yourself — that’s manifestly untrue.
So let’s answer the question. If you genuinely want to make your opposition felt, what could you do?
Off the top of my head, you can pretty much bring society to a halt in the next couple of hours if you want. Stop business and civil society in its tracks. Go to every shop, office, and workplace and flood their toilets if you wish. ‘Accidentally’ lean on the fire alarms. Clumsily spill coffee on their electronics. Get haphazrdly stuck in lifts. Go to a drive-through and contrive to lose your car keys in the queue for twenty minutes. Get a bunch of A4 envelopes and cheap stamps, and mail a pile of loose stones to Wetherspoons to wipe the shit-eating grin off their owner’s awful, awful face. With a bit of superglue and some chains, you can stop people getting in or out of pretty much any building. Don’t go to work. Any of you. Riot. All of you.
Because you’ll do all you can, right?
Wrong. I don’t think you’ll do that. Any of it. Because, implicit in your question, is that politics is something other people do. You’ve no leader, or viral movement, or tipping point that allows all that stuff to gather inertia. If everyone else was at a barricade right now, you’d quite possibly toddle off and join them. But there are no blockades, no strikes, no riots. There aren’t even any flooded bogs.
So maybe you won’t. But know this: politics is what you do, today and tomorrow. It’s not up to someone else. In the words of a song, “act as if you’re free already”.
None of the huge system change that’s required just irrupts overnight. It’s borne of community links, personal ties, bonds between engaged people. So what you can really do is build those links. Forge those bonds. Meet those people. Politics is what you do.
“But time is too short for all that!” you screech. Remainer, as far as Brexit goes, I won’t be doing any of that (though the Wetherspoons thing is tempting).
Look, I get that Brexit’s a proxy war for not being an arsehole. As my friend puts it, “not everyone who voted out is a racist, but all the racists voted out.”
So will remaining stop racism? Will it bring us back to the workers’ paradise we had in 2015? Will it restore the green and pleasant land, free from pollution, we had thanks to those copious environmental regulations?
Will those struggles go away?
More importantly, will remaining convince at least some people that they have? It will. It’ll lower the horizon and narrow the view.
They’re struggles we need to have, and whatever happens with Brexit they’ll continue. This mammoth distraction confirms David Graeber’s opinion that “what is interesting is not necessarily what’s important.” Brexit is fascinating to politicians — it’s their thing, their field of expertise — and politicians are of huge interest to the media. But what’s interesting isn’t what’s important.
Poverty. Xenophobia. Misogyny. The effects of a vicious benefits system on the disabled. Corporate tax avoidance. A mental health epidemic. The fact that the entire planet is, as it stands, utterly fucked. The precise technical nature of the political executive.
Can you see the odd one out here? Can you see all the places where genuine and effective protest is urgently needed? Can you see what you could be building links about, whether we remain or leave? Can you see how those struggles don’t disappear in mid-May?
David Foster Wallace once wrote that “A dog, if you point at something, will only look at your finger.” Brexit is that finger. It’s the form, not the content. It’s the menu you’re still staring at while the food in front of you grows cold.
As another friend put it, “Brexit is the wrong answer to the wrong question.”
It’s not that Brexit is going to happen regardless — it may and it may not. But your petitions, placard waving and voting are not the adequate tool to change it.
And, dear remainer, it’s not the thing that needs to change.